U.S. nun’s cause for sainthood opened

Despite New Mexico’s rich Catholic history, no bishop there has ever formally proposed a candidate for sainthood — until now. On June 29, Santa Fe Archbishop Michael Sheehan, with the Vatican’s permission, published a decree opening the cause of the beatification and canonization of Sister of Charity Blandina Segale.

This diocesan phase is the first step toward potential sainthood. A diocesan tribunal will consider Sister Blandina’s life and writings and examine whether she lived out to a heroic degree the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude, and the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity. After the diocesan phase is closed, the documentation will be sent to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints in Rome.

In time, the congregation may recommend that the pope declare she lived the virtues heroically. If he does so, she will be honored with the title “venerable.” Subsequently, if a miracle attributed to her intercession is formally recognized, she may be beatified and honored with the title “blessed,” with a Mass and Office in her honor permitted in certain places. If, subsequently, another miracle is recognized, the pope may then canonize her as a saint, with her public liturgical honor extended throughout the Church.

To the West

The fifth child in her family, Sister Blandina was born Maria Rosa Segale in Cicagna, a small town in northwestern Italy, in 1850. When she was 4 years old, her father, an orchard owner, emigrated with his family to the United States to escape the political turmoil that had engulfed the Italian peninsula. The family settled in Cincinnati, and after a period of extreme poverty, her father supported his family by operating a fruit stand and a candy store.

Educated at parochial and public grammar schools, Rosa attended a girls’ high school run by the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati, an offshoot of the institute founded by St. Elizabeth Ann Seton in Maryland. Rosa entered the community at the age of 16 and pronounced her vows two years later, taking Blandina as her religious name. She was assigned first to Dayton and then to Steubenville, Ohio, and while serving there at the age of 22, she received word that she was being assigned to go to Trinidad.

“Neither of us could find Trinidad on the map except in the island of Cuba,” Sister Blandina recalled in a letter to Sister Justina, her older sister who had followed her example and entered the Sisters of Charity. “So we concluded that Cuba was my destination.”

Sister Blandina was soon informed, however, that she was to travel West, alone, to Trinidad, Colorado, a small town more than 1,400 miles away.

Sister Blandina returned to the motherhouse in Cincinnati, where her superior asked her to spend a day at home with her parents before her departure. Although her mother supported her vocation, some family friends, as well as her father, implored her not to leave. She left for Trinidad, but “not without my seeing his tears falling fast,” she later wrote.

History

Bp. Ricardo Ramirez and Sr. Patricia Ann Sabourin
Retired Bishop Ricardo Ramirez and Sister of Charity Patricia Ann Sabourin celebrate the cause’s opening June 25. CNS photo

On her journey to Colorado, she took advantage of opportunities to speak to strangers about God and the religious life. “I have adopted this plan: Do whatever presents itself and never omit anything because of hardship or repugnance,” she wrote. In Trinidad, and later in Santa Fe and Albuquerque, New Mexico, Sister Blandina lived out her plan of courageously taking advantage of opportunities to do good, as recounted in “At the End of the Santa Fe Trail” — her journal published in 1948.

The State of New Mexico has a particularly rich Catholic history, one too little known outside of the Southwest. The first Spanish mission was established in 1598 and the Chapel of San Miguel, one of America’s oldest churches still in use, was built in Santa Fe in 1626.

In Santa Fe’s Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, La Conquistadora is venerated as the oldest image of the Blessed Mother in any church in the United States.

An intrepid force

Summarizing her remarkable work in Colorado and New Mexico, the Archdiocese of Santa Fe paid tribute in a June press release to her “tireless work of teaching and healing the immigrant, the marginalized, the poor, and advocating for women and children. She challenged the occupying government and military in fair treatment of the Native Americans. Sister Blandina came to the aid of mistreated railroad workers, finding time to care for the sick while building orphanages, hospitals, schools and trade schools.”

Allen Sánchez, the petitioner of Sister Blandina’s cause, serves as president and CEO of Catholic Health Initiatives St. Joseph’s Children, an Albuquerque hospital founded by Sister Blandina. He said “she consistently kept Jesus as her focus. Jesus was always her reason for sacrifice. She allowed God’s love to flow out to others in her work.”

“Many good and holy people have worked in New Mexico,” he added. “What makes Sister Blandina unique is that prayer and intercession to her exist. Not all good people are called upon for help after their death.

“For years, schoolchildren re-enacted her life in plays. Social workers and nurses, both in New Mexico and in Ohio, have reflected on her example and prayed to her. There are people, including myself, that attribute many blessings to her intercession.”

Sister Victoria Marie Forde, who grew up in Albuquerque, attended a school built by Sister Blandina and served as one of the Sisters of Charity’s delegates at the June 29 publication of the decree opening her cause for canonization. “She is a role model for all our Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati who have been missionaries in many countries,” she said.

Sister Blandina’s “dauntless courage in seeing a need and responding creatively, fearlessly, especially for the poor, no matter the race or nationality — Native Americans, immigrants, anyone” — is especially noteworthy, she added.

Some recent articles about Sister Blandina have referred to encounters with Billy the Kid described in her journal, but two authors of works on the outlaw believe that Sister Blandina did not meet him.

“I doubt very much that Sister Blandina Segale ever encountered the outlaw William H. Bonney, otherwise known as Billy the Kid,” says Mark Lee Gardner, author of “To Hell on a Fast Horse: The Untold Story of Billy the Kid and Pat Garrett” (HarperCollins, $14.99).

Michael Wallis, author of “Billy the Kid: The Endless Ride” (Norton, $17.95) believes that Sister Blandina met a different outlaw, William LeRoy, who was also nicknamed Billy the Kid, but “this does not mean that her motives and association with the other lesser-known outlaw were not of great import.”

Final decades

In 1894, Sister Blandina returned to Ohio. After brief assignments in Fayetteville and Glendale, she spent the rest of her life serving Italian immigrants in Cincinnati. One Sister of Charity, writing in 1947, estimated that Sister Blandina catechized 80 percent of the city’s Italian immigrants during her decades of work.

In 1897, she and her older sister founded the Santa Maria Institute to help meet the spiritual and material needs of the Italian community. There, according to a 1931 article in the Cincinnati Post, she and other Sisters of Charity “offered shelter to women stranded and without work, gave food to hungry men and found them jobs, guarded the children of working women in their day nursery, visited homes, looked after erring children, [and] visited prisons.”

Ten years later, at the age of 91, Sister Blandina uttered her last word. It was the same as the first word she had spoken as an infant, the Italian word for “Jesus:” “Gesu.”

J.J. Ziegler writes from North Carolina.